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State says fourth Floridian has died of COVID-19 as governor admits ‘community spread’

Pence became the the highest-level government official to acknowledge the COVID-19’s community spread in Florida.
Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis take questions during a Florida Coronavirus Response Meeting, at the West Palm Beach International Airport, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis take questions during a Florida Coronavirus Response Meeting, at the West Palm Beach International Airport, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla. [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]
Published Mar. 14, 2020
Updated Mar. 15, 2020

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As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped Saturday — and a new death was tallied — Florida’s governor acknowledged what has been increasingly clear after schools shuttered, sporting events stopped and shoppers began raiding supermarkets for supplies.

The coronavirus is jumping from person to person — and many have no idea how they got it.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday finally acknowledged that Florida is experiencing “community spread” of the coronavirus — the transmitting of the virus among those who aren’t sure how or where they got infected.

According to the state, the overall damage, as of Saturday at 7 p.m. was that 70 Florida residents and seven non-Florida residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. South Florida emerged as the state’s epicenter of infections, including six new cases in Miami-Dade County and nine new cases in Broward — the bulk of them with no stated connection to travel history.

That number included six people from Nova Southeastern University who had been on an exchange trip in Ireland, the school’s president confirmed Saturday.

Around 8:30 p.m., the mayor of Jacksonville, Lenny Curry, tweeted that he had been informed of two additional cases in Duval County.

Also on Saturday night, the Florida Department of Health confirmed a third in-state coronavirus death: a 77-year-old man from Lee County who had been previously diagnosed with the illness. In a previously reported case, a fourth Floridian died from COVID-19, but while in California.

DeSantis, during a news conference on Saturday afternoon, stressed that while the odds of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus are “still very small,” there remains the real risk of transmitting it to someone who is elderly, frail or physically vulnerable. On Saturday, he ordered the suspension of all visits to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and similar sites.

“This is much, much more deadly than just the seasonal flu,’‘ DeSantis said.

He spoke Saturday afternoon not long after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence became the the highest-level government official to acknowledge the virus’ community spread in Florida. “Now we’ve seen community spread in Massachusetts and also Florida,” Pence said during a Saturday news conference as he spoke about federal resources to be allocated to hot-spot states.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines community spread as: “People have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.” All but one of the Miami-Dade cases recorded as of Saturday cited an “unclear” travel history, again raising more questions about how the flu-like virus is spreading in Florida.

President Donald Trump and Pence, who is heading the federal task force responding to the virus, spoke on Saturday, hailing emergency measures, and announcing that a travel ban has been extended to the United Kingdom.

The U.S. president also announced he took a coronavirus test. Saturday evening, CNN reported that the test was negative. Trump recently met at Mar-a-Lago, his resort, home and social club, with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has tested positive for the virus.

Pence wasn’t the first federal official to plainly state the gravity of the coronavirus spread in Florida.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert on the federal Coronavirus Task Force, earlier said that Florida is one of the states with “community spread” of the disease, elevating the risk for millions.

The coronavirus has caused an unprecedented response around the world, shutting down businesses and mass gatherings and closing borders in countries such as China, Italy and Spain. Trump on Friday declared the coronavirus a national emergency, paving the way for increased federal funds for testing and financial relief for an economy that could be screeching to a halt.

Pence and Fauci’s acknowledgments served as a sharp contrast to DeSantis, who on Wednesday insisted that it wasn’t clear just how the virus was spreading.

But on Saturday, the governor raised the state’s emergency operations center to its highest level of alert. That means the state can now work 24 hours a day to to provide access to services, stockpiling supplies such as test kits and coordinating with local communities.

Among other developments in Florida on Saturday:

▪ After 4:30 p.m. ever day, the iconic stretch of sand on South Beach that had been teeming with parties celebrating spring break will be closed. Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales said the revelers “don’t seem to care about viruses.”

▪ Miami-Dade’s jail system announced that a newly introduced inmate was being tested for the coronavirus. He and other inmates were being isolated, and some officers were sent home. No jail inmates or corrections staffers have tested positive for the virus.

▪ The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office e-mailed employees to say it is monitoring a staffer who fell ill with flu-like symptoms and is being tested for the coronavirus.

▪ DeSantis said he asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to send home the 61 Floridians who had been passengers on the Grand Princess off the coast of San Francisco and are now being quarantined at Dobbins Air Force Reserve base in Georgia.

“Many of these Floridians are elderly,’’ he said. “When they return, they will be tested and do another period of self-isolation, he said. “I think it’s much better for everyone that they can be safely brought back and be able to get back into their homes.”

Across the state, authorities were gearing up for the long haul.

The Florida Department of Education recently obtained a new computer server while preparing to serve 400,000 students through virtual instruction and has recently obtained a new server to handle the increased capacity, said Helen Aguirre Ferre, the governor’s spokeswoman.

The state had also purchased enough test kits to accommodate 625,000 people.

“We are not waiting for the situation on the ground to dictate response,’’ said Jared Moskowitz, Florida director of emergency management. “We are doing things before that is necessary.”

Among the supplies the state is stockpiling: respirators and ventilators, space shields, goggles, gloves and 95 masks, and health-worker shoe covers. The state is preparing to set up a mobile hospital for up to 250 people.

Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew also suggested that hospital space may run out and said the governor’s emergency order allows hospitals to convert vacant buildings and those that have been previously licensed for inpatient use “to expedite that process.”

Mayhew emphasized that the only way to stop the spread of the virus in communities is through aggressive containment strategies.

She acknowledged that while the no-visitation orders may seem harsh to family members, it is being done to keep the residents safe.

“We cannot say enough the risks that exists for our elderly and those with underlying medical conditions,’’ she said. “This infection is highly transmissible and for those over the age of 70, in our nursing facilities in our assisted living facilities and other residential programs can be highly deadly.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Florida Department of Health

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